Kittitas County government’s land-use planning and legal staff is recommending the three-year-old restriction on new groundwater wells in Upper County be applied throughout the county.
The proposal was presented Tuesday night to county commissioners and the county Planning Commission as part of recommended changes to bring the county’s rural land-use policies, zoning rules and development code into compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act law.
Details of the water recommendation were presented by county Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Neil Caulkins and county Planning Official Robert “Doc” Hansen to the two boards.
On Wednesday, Hansen said the expansion of new well restrictions to all parts of the county’s rural, non-city areas understandably prompted the most questions, comments and concerns among the two county boards.
“Knowing how issues of water resources are major concerns in Kittitas County, I’ve always understood this (well water restrictions) was going to be the hardest decision faced by the county,” Hansen said.
Caulkins was not available for comment late Wednesday afternoon.
Hansen said the wording in the proposed changes was a beginning point in addressing the water supply issue as it relates to the county complying with the state’s Growth Management Act. The Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board repeatedly has ruled the county’s rural land-use provisions do not line up with GMA rules since 2007, and a Washington State Supreme Court decision in July 2011 supported the board.
“The wording could, ultimately be changed and there may be modifications in how it can be applied,” Hansen said. “The issue needs to be addressed. This is one step toward reaching compliance.”
County commissioners Alan Crankovich and Paul Jewell, contacted Wednesday said they were opposed to the proposal as presented.
The commissioners wanted more discussion on legal options involving water that would bring the county into GMA compliance.
Hansen said the goal in recommending expanding the application of the groundwater restrictions countywide is to make sure the issue is fully addressed by the two boards, which will conduct formal public hearings on the recommendations later in October and in November.
Hansen said the totality of the proposed changes to rural land-use policies, zoning and development rules, along with groundwater restrictions, are aimed to bring the county into full compliance.
The restrictions, under the staff proposal, would apply to those seeking rural subdivisions or individual building permits involving the use of new wells.
The state Department of Ecology on July 16, 2009, placed restrictions on certain areas of rural Upper County as they relate to new groundwater wells, including the drilling and use of wells exempt from state water right permits.
The restrictions require property owners, builders and developers to show proof that the new wells they’re proposing to drill won’t impact the total water supply availability in the three-county Yakima River Basin.
They must show the amount of water they will draw out of new wells (which doesn’t return to the ground) will be offset by their ownership of an existing surface water right that matches the amount of water drawn out that doesn’t go back into the aquifer.
The goal is to make sure new groundwater withdrawals don’t decrease the overall amount of water in the basin so new wells are water neutral in their impact.
State officials have noted that the basin is over-appropriated, meaning the amount of water that can be used through water rights exceeds the amount of water typically generated annually in the basin.
Hansen acknowledged the controversial nature of the groundwater restrictions in Upper County and said the water proposal discussed Tuesday, and the land-use changes, were to fully inform the two boards of the concerns addressed by the changes.
The changes were developed by county Community Development Services staff and county-hired consultants with input from the public and interest groups.
Hansen said all the recommended rural land-use and water-related changes are aimed at reasonably responding to the July 28, 2011, state Supreme Court decision involving a county court appeal.
The state’s highest court, in a 6-3 decision, interpreted a provision in the state’s Growth Management Act as mandating county government’s rules and land-use planning to take into consideration the impact of rural subdivisions on groundwater as part of its permitting process.
The decision stated the county in past years has failed to protect water resources by not considering the accumulated impact from multiple groundwater wells proposed by rural developments located next to each other.
A copy of the staff recommendation is online at www.co.kittitas.wa.us/cds/compliance-2012/meetings.asp, under the heading “October Joint Study Session Materials.”